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First to college; first to graduate

Going to college is a point of pride for students who are first in their family to venture into unknown territory. For some, this pride may quickly manifest into uncertainty or concern that they don’t belong. The unfamiliarity of the college environment, complete with oddlyTwo people posed in front of UF sign named offices like the Bursar and the

Registrar, many first-generation students quickly notice the complexities of college life. For many, it’s easy to feel lost and alone yet we find when students make connections with peers and adults who genuinely care about their success, the impossible turns to possible.

At the University of Florida, I can proudly say we’ve intentionally supported first-generation college students for the last decade. With the start of the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program in 2006, the institution made a commitment to financially and personally support nearly 1,250 undergraduate, first-generation students each year. Marrying a full-grant and scholarship financial aid package with a comprehensive support program that includes, but is not limited to peer mentoring, financial literacy education, career preparation, and leadership development has made a difference for nearly 4,000 first-generation students over the last 10 of people at a reception

So, how do we ensure first-generation students who come to UF or any university, for that matter, succeed and graduate? My first answer is: we expect them to. High expectations of students previously considered “at-risk” is important. Language matters. We never threaten that “some of you” won’t be here on graduation day. Many tell us family members or friends from their hometowns say such things. We never do.

Our first-generation students are not disadvantaged. We help them uncover their many advantages (i.e. independence, problem-solving, and resilience) that they’ve relied upon to get them through past struggles. These past experiences and how they’ve overcome, positions them well for college success. When college gets hard, as it tends to, they know how to persevere relying on their unique and coveted strengths. We just help point out photo of a young womanthese strengths every chance we can.

We must also provide the support and needed resources, many mentioned above, tailored specifically to the first-generation experience. This can include engaging alumni to connect with current students to expand their professional network and learn about tips for transitioning out of college. Doing so implies current students will earn a degree and transition to graduate school, professional school, and/or post-graduate employment. First-generation students also benefit from peer mentors as well as life coaches who provide encouragement and the know-how to navigate the complexities of college life and beyond.

For more information about the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program or to discuss ways to improve first-generation student success, please contact Dr. Leslie Pendleton, University of Florida,

Thank You

Thinking About “Our Kids”

A book by one of America’s leading scholars was published a few months ago, Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisisbook cover for "Our Kids", by the sociologist Robert Putnam.  Putman is an eloquent and renowned writer and researcher. He is, as the New York Times wrote in a review of Our Kids, “technically a Harvard social scientist, but a better description might be poet laureate of civil society.”

The book provides a compelling description of what poverty in America looks like, and marshals the scientific evidence to draw out in detail the impact of poverty on the educational plans and dreams of the young.

Our Kids is a harsh critique of current American society, both government and civil society.  In Putnam’s view, in the past, and as recently as the 1950’s when he grew up, there was a greater regard by citizens for the well being of children in their community; rich or poor, advantaged or disadvantaged, all kids in town were “our kids,” hence the title. This concern was part of a society’s fabric, and played an important role in ensuring equal opportunity and upward social mobility. The book is structured around the life stories or Robert Putnamportraits of various people interviewed by the author, followed by an analysis of their stories in view of the science.

Putnam’s focus is on equality of opportunity, and the book’s central question is “Do youth today coming from different social and economic backgrounds in fact have roughly equal chances, and has that changed in recent decades?”

He starts by setting out the facts that show a growing economic inequality, an economic chasm opening up between the poor and non-poor.   Income inequality, he argues, has led to a decrease in the equality of opportunity.   Increasingly, families live in either uniformly affluent neighborhoods or in uniformly poor empty swing set at nightneighborhoods. “So while race-based
segregation has been slowly declining, class based segregation has been increasing.” (page 38)

Another chapter focuses on families and notes that from 1965 to 1980 American family life underwent a massive transformation. The Ozzie and Harriet style union, two-parent household with a working dad and stay at home mom, shifted as divorce became epidemic.  This and other factors,  “have had an unmistakable effect on kids’ lives. In the upper, college educated third of American society, most kids today live with two parents, and such families nowadays typically have two incomes. In the lower, high-school-educated third, however, most kids live with at most one of their biological parents, and in young woman resting her head and hands on a stack of booksfact, many live in a kaleidoscopic, multi-partner, or blended family, but rarely with more than one wage earner. Children growing up in the lower-tier families perform worse on standardized tests, earn lower grades and stay in school for fewer years. They are more likely to have behavioral problems such as aggression, and psychological problems like anxiety and depression.

The starkness of the picture that Putnam paints comes through clearly in the life stories of the people in the book.  His picture is one of two Americas divided by money and social class. The lower class live in poor, crime-ridden areas, where violence is common. They live in blended and extended families with meager resources.   Their parents, when present, grew up in similar circumstances. Their caregivers have little time or ability to read to them.  Stress levels are high. They attend inferior schools, with teachers who are closeup of a person writing with a penciloften uncaring.  They have no friends or relatives outside this impoverished community. Social mobility or equality of opportunity doesn’t really exist.  By contrast, the top third have not only much more money, they also have all the social advantages: parents and teachers who watch over them, and a broad circle of friends and contacts by virtue of their social class. They live in safe, vibrant communities, and have a staggering array of life opportunities.  All of these social facts for both communities directly impact their educational endeavors and dreams, and Professor Putnam concludes that the single most important determinant of success are the resources (negative and positive) that students bring to school, rather than the school itself. As one book reviewer noted, it’s what is in their “backpacks” which they bring to school that makes all the difference.

At one point in his book, Professor Putnam admits that before doing the research, he did not fully understand the inability of the poor to lift themselves out of poverty.  He is a person from humble roots.  “I did it through dint of hard work,” he thought, “why can’t graduates throwing their graduation caps in the airthey?”  An astonishing admission from someone who has worked in this field all his life, but I think it speaks to the ignorance of many of us and of our failure to absorb the societal reality which has emerged in the past several decades.   Professor Putnam says he now understands.